Strengthening Social Welfare and Child Protection Systems in Germany and Sweden
The greatest proportion of children seeking international protection is found in Germany, with children representing one-third of the total asylum applications. By contrast, Sweden, which took in more than 35,300 unaccompanied children in 2015, has received the highest number of them in both absolute and relative terms (Eurostat 2016b; European Network of Ombudspersons for Children 2016). Both states have witnessed a public backlash and recently have implemented restrictive policies and laws designed to reduce arrivals (Integrated Regional Information Networks 2016).
In Germany, asylum-seekers, including children, are reported to spend up to six months in so-called “initial reception centers”—mass reception facilities converted from sports halls or warehouses that lack privacy, sanitation, and child-friendly spaces (European Network of Ombudspersons for Children 2016). Children have access to formal education, however, face lengthy delays for enrolment (ibid.). Regarding unaccompanied children, a child is not allowed to act on his or her own behalf during the asylum procedure; however, guardians are not appointed in a timely manner. Generally this occurs after redistribution to the responsible federal state, which can take up to eight months, resulting in delays in accessing the asylum system (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights 2016).
In Sweden, the asylum reception system depends on the capacity of municipalities, as local authorities are responsible for the care and welfare of unaccompanied children. Municipalities provide social workers to assess the child’s needs, run accommodation centers, and deliver social services to children. Because of a shortage of social workers during 2015, it is reported that processes did not function properly and legal standards were not met. Many unaccompanied children have been housed for long periods in emergency shelters designed for a maximum of 48 hours. Moreover, the appointment of legal guardians for unaccompanied children is often delayed (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights 2016; European Network of Ombudspersons for Children 2016).
At the national level, these two case studies highlight the need to strengthen child protection and social welfare systems to respond to the needs of refugee children—both accompanied and unaccompanied. At the European level, in 2015, EU institutions held frequent discussions, resulting in some ad hoc initiatives and mechanisms designed to respond to the large-scale flows of refugees into Europe. This chapter now examines the degree to which such measures are upholding and prioritizing the protection and well-being of refugee children.